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Modern Ireland in 100 Artworks: William Orpen’s The Signing of Peace, Versailles

21 April 2015

William Orpen’s The Signing of Peace, Versailles, 1919

The article written by Catherine Marshall, co-editor, of Volume V of the Art and Architecture of Ireland looks at Orpen’s great painting which memorialises and questions World War 1.

Have you caught up on the 100 Artworks series? Tweet us your favourite artwork from the series @RIAdawson

The artist had a unique insight into the war and the peace treaty given that he had gone to the western front as an official war artist. ‘His work on the front line, documenting the tragic life of the ordinary soldier, and his less circumspect paintings of French girls caught up in the war, hugely expanded his artistic range. An exhibition of 125 of his war paintings was shown in London, Manchester and the United States in 1918 to great acclaim and was visited by Queen Mary’.

Read more about Orpen’s £3,000 commission and its significance in the full article.

Learn more about the author in his biography from the Royal Irish Academy’s Dictionary of Irish Biography.

Learn more about the Art and Architecture of Ireland project.

William Orpen, by Lawrence William White

Orpen, Sir William Newenham Montague (1878–1931), painter, was born 27 November 1878 at Oriel, Grove Avenue, Blackrock, Co. Dublin, youngest among four sons and two daughters of Arthur Herbert Orpen (1830–1926), solicitor, and Anne Orpen (née Caulfeild) (d. 1912), eldest daughter of Charles Caulfeild (1804–62), bishop of Nassau, Bahamas, and related to the earls of Charlemont. His paternal grandfather, Richard John Theodore Orpen (1788–1876), of Ardtully, Kilgarvan, Co. Kerry, president of the Incorporated Law Society and knighted for his services to the legal profession, founded the successful practice which Orpen's father eventually headed. Orpen's artistic talent was evident from childhood, and was encouraged by his mother and his eldest brother, Richard Caulfeild Orpen (qv) (who became an architect and painter), against the wishes of his father, who wanted William to study law.

Education and early career From age twelve William studied at the Dublin Metropolitan School of Art (DMSA) (1891–7), where his precocious talent was recognised and encouraged by the headmaster, James Brenan (qv). William accepted without rebellion the tradition-bound, sober, and utilitarian character of the school's regime, which was aimed more at producing teachers of industrial design than artists; his own talent allowed him to transcend the limitations of such training. After receiving every major prize awarded by the school, he won the gold medal for life drawing in the British national competition (1897). Studying in London at the Slade school of fine art (1897–9), he flourished under the progressive system, astonishing his teachers and peers with the brilliance of his draughtsmanship. His many distinguished fellow students included Augustus John, with whom he initiated a passionate, but erratic, lifelong relationship, which oscillated wildly over the years between intense warmth and jealous antagonism. His developing style was influenced by such old masters as Chardin, Hogarth, and Watteau, and especially by Rembrandt. After summer visits to Paris (1898) and Normandy (1899) (where he joined John and other young artists on a painting holiday), he won the £40 painting prize in the Slade's 1899 summer competition for ‘The play scene from Hamlet’, a large canvas showing off his various influences, and incorporating, among the actors and audience depicted, portraits of people within the artistic and bohemian circle in which he moved; the work is thus the first of several important ‘conversation pieces’, grouping people of his acquaintance in a social setting. He also won the Taylor art scholarship of the RDS in successive years (1899–1900).

Orpen exhibited his early oil paintings to great acclaim at the progressive New English Art Club (NEAC), which he joined in 1900. In that year he painted three important works portraying as model Emily Scobel, who was briefly his lover (she accompanied him on a second trip to Normandy): ‘The bedroom’; ‘The English nude’, fleshy and sensual, derived from the north European tradition; and ‘The mirror’, an exquisitely handled interior in the Dutch tradition, that includes an ‘Arnolfini mirror’, in which the observer sees a reflected self-portrait of the artist at work.

A small man, 5 ft 2 in (1.57 m) in height, his intense blue eyes set in a long-jawed angular face with a prominent lower lip and profusion of freckles, from an early age Orpen thought himself physically ugly, a conception that deeply coloured his self-image, and the persona that he projected to friends and the public. In fact women found him very attractive, and he married (8 August 1901) Grace Knewstub (d. 1948), daughter of a London art-gallery manager; settling in Chelsea, the couple would have three daughters. Grace modelled for some of his finest paintings of the period, including ‘A window in a London street’ (1901), and ‘The red scarf’ (1902). Orpen supported his family by developing a successful practice painting portraits, and travelled widely throughout Britain and Ireland fulfilling commissions.

Orpen and Ireland Orpen taught in the DMSA (1902–14), irregularly at first, but then in yearly or twice-yearly sessions. Emphasising firm drawing and careful study of tonal values, his teaching reestablished the DMSA as the centre of fine-art instruction in Ireland, away from the RHA schools. He revolutionised the methodology of the DMSA life classes, and exerted a profound influence on his students, which, through their work and teaching, would reverberate throughout Irish art for the next half-century. His principal DMSA students included Patrick Tuohy (qv), Leo Whelan (qv), James Sleator (qv), and Seán Keating (qv); the last two spent periods in London as his studio assistants. Orpen formed a firm and lasting friendship with George Moore (qv), whose ambivalent attitude toward the Irish cultural revival he emulated. He painted portraits of Moore (1903), Lord Iveagh (Edward Cecil Guinness) (qv)) (1904), and Augusta Gregory (qv) (1904). His friendship with Hugh Lane (qv) – a distant cousin (as was Lady Gregory) on his mother's side – dated from his student years at the Slade. He helped organise, and was generously represented in, Lane's important exhibition of Irish painting at the London Guildhall (1904). In summer 1904 he accompanied Lane to Paris, where Lane commenced the purchase of French impressionist masterpieces that would form the nucleus of the collection eventually bequeathed to Dublin's municipal gallery. They continued to Madrid, where Orpen, on repeated visits to the Prado, imbibed the works of Velázquez, a defining influence on the next phase of his style.

Sympathetic to Lane's aspirations to create a museum of modern art for Dublin, and to define a role for the visual arts in the national cultural revival, Orpen completed the series, begun by John Butler Yeats (qv), of portraits of Irish notables for the projected gallery. Charging a nominal £10 for each picture (his going price for a commissioned portrait at the time approached £200), he painted over thirty subjects, including T. W. Russell (qv), William O'Brien (qv), Antony MacDonnell (qv), J. P. Mahaffy (qv), and Timothy Healy (qv). The most sensitive treatments (within a series generally pedestrian in quality) were those of Michael Davitt (qv) (1906), painted several months before the subject's death, Nathaniel Hone (qv) (1907), and Augustine Birrell (qv), the latter benefiting from a more relaxed pose and composition than the others.

Influence of Velázquez From his study of Velázquez, Orpen derived economy in composition, and the simple but grand gesture that creates drama in the depiction of mundane subjects. Such qualities are prominent in his genre works of the next years. Foremost is the series (begun in 1904) modelled by Lottie Stafford, a Cockney washerwoman of remarkable physical presence. Orpen painted her repeatedly as a sensual, earthy, and motherly Juno figure, exuding easeful self-composure even amid the rigours of toil. Besides the two pictures entitled ‘Lottie of Paradise Walk’, the series includes ‘The wash house’ (NGI), ‘Resting’ (Ulster Museum), and ‘The idle girl’. Orpen used elderly male models for ‘The costermonger’ (1905), and ‘The old cabman’ (1907). The debt to Velázquez is also evident in the franker sexuality and startling dramatisation that now characterise his treatment of the nude, as in ‘A woman’ (1906), a boldly erotic composition of a nude poised on the edge of a bed, and ‘The reflection’ (1906), in which a woman with back to the viewer holds open the hooded dressing gown in which she is shrouded to reveal her nudity before the studio mirror.

Orpen composed a conversation piece, ‘Homage to Manet’ (1906–9) (Manchester City Art Gallery), depicting six leading figures in the London art world, including Lane and Moore, beneath the Manet painting of Eva Gonzales purchased by Lane during the 1904 Paris trip. Among his most important paintings, it was the one on which he worked the longest, executing numerous preparatory sketches and successive versions; the composition is derived from Fentin-Latour's ‘Homage à Delacroix’. Two of Orpen's finest large group portraits date from this period, that of the Vere Foster family shooting on their property near Ardee, Co. Louth (1907), and ‘A Bloomsbury family’ (1908), depicting his friends William and Mabel Nicholson and their four children seated for tea.

Relationship with Evelyn St George In 1906 Orpen commenced the most significant personal and professional relationship of his life, when his mother, anxious to promote his career, arranged for him to paint portraits of Evelyn St George (née Baker), the moneyed daughter of a New York banker, and her husband, his mother's first cousin Howard Bligh St George, a Connemara land agent. By 1908 Orpen and Evelyn had begun an affair, which persisted until the mid 1910s, largely conducted in London, where Evelyn maintained a flat. A woman of strong, outspoken character, and unconventional habits and tastes, she was striking in appearance and statuesque in height (over 6 ft (1.83 m)), exuding a grand manner, and favouring dramatic attire. Encouraging Orpen to regard himself as a great artist and to paint accordingly, she secured for him numerous prestigious portrait commissions, and advised him on the subjects and treatment of various of his works.

Orpen's many portraits of Evelyn, mostly dramatic treatments on large canvases, include one depicting her sprawled on a divan in a sumptuously furnished bedroom in her home at Clonsilla Lodge, Co. Dublin (1908), and a superb full-length portrait in feathered-and-furred evening dress (1914), executed, at her suggestion, without primary colours. He painted several sensitive portraits of her daughter Gardenia, from childhood to early womanhood, including a charming watercolour exterior of the girl astride a pony (1910). Though he produced massive, imposing treatments of landowners, aristocrats, and public figures, his finest portraits of the period are the intimate, genre-like treatments of Vera Brewster Hone, American wife of the Irish writer Joseph Maunsell Hone (qv), which include ‘The Chinese shawl’, ‘The blue hat’, and ‘The angler’ (all 1912). Under Evelyn's influence he painted a double portrait of his own parents (1911) (NGI), and a monumental conversation piece, ‘The Café Royal’ (1912) (Musée d'Orsay, Paris), including, inter alia, Moore, John, Oliver St John Gogarty (qv), and Orpen himself.

Self-portraits Orpen emulated Rembrandt as one of the most prolific self-portraitists in the history of art, engaging thereby in continual self-examination and self-dramatisation. His most arresting self-portraits generally show him striking a characteristic ‘Orpen pose’: torso directed toward the left edge of the picture, with head turned over the left shoulder to eyeball the viewer with a direct, steady, penetrating gaze. The pose appears as early as ‘Un amer curaçao’ (1900), as he leans on the bar of a Normandy bistro. Often he depicts himself in costume, as though playing a role, or adopting an alter ego, or donning a disguise, thus facing the world in a series of masks: a Chardin-like painter in ‘Self-portrait with glasses’ (c.1908); a game shooter in ‘The dead ptarmigan’ (1909) (NGI); a stereotypical west-of-Ireland peasant in ‘The man from Aran’ (1909); a jockey in ‘The Baldoyle steeplechaser’ (1910). There are also self-portraits of the artist at work: ‘Myself and “Venus” ’ and ‘Myself and “Cupid” ’ (both 1910). In many self-portraits of his middle period he exaggerates his supposed physical ugliness, accenting to the verge of caricature the less comely features of his countenance. The general effect of Orpen's self-portraiture is the uncanny sense of the viewer being observed, with piercing eye, by the man on the canvas, not the reverse.

Irish landscapes and allegories From 1907 Orpen took annual summer family holidays at Howth, Co. Dublin, where he painted in the open air, often including in landscapes family members set against dramatic effects of sea and sky; ‘A breezy day, Howth’ (DCGHL) is a notable example. He painted an iconic picture of Sean Keating as ‘A man of the west’ (1914), completed in a single two-and-a-half hour sitting. Increasingly sardonic in his opinion of the aims and ethos of the cultural movement, he shared the scepticism of Moore and Gogarty (his friendship with the latter flourished in these years) about the very possibility of Ireland as an independent political and cultural entity. His last artistic engagement with Ireland came in three large allegorical works, encompassing themes of Irish art and culture, religious faith and morality, landscape, traditional dress, manners, and sexuality. Stylistically innovative, the paintings were executed in the recently contrived ‘marble medium’ technique, resulting in a flat, opaque quality, akin to tempura, and appropriate to a decorative, two-dimensional, fresco-like composition. These innovations represent Orpen's engagement with the experimental ferment and revolutionary stylistic upheavals occurring at the time in art internationally.

According to his own detailed explanation, ‘Sowing new seed’ (1913) is an allegorical statement on the stultifying of innovation and originality by the bureaucracy controlling the funding and management of the arts in contemporary Ireland. The explanation was supplied when the painting, purchased by the municipal art gallery of Adelaide, Australia, aroused public and official controversy and confusion, culminating in the disfigurement of a female nude in an acid attack on the canvas. ‘The western wedding’ (1914), set amid a barren Connemara landscape, depicts a society in which not alone the nuptial couple, but also the officiating priest, are overseen by the matchmaker. The most enigmatic of the series is ‘The holy well’ (1915) (NGI), set at what appears to be an ancient island monastic site amid another bleak, barren western wilderness. A group of pilgrims strip naked to drink or bathe in the waters of the well, which is flanked by a monk and a kneeling woman in the attitude of saints in the sacra conversazione of Christian religious art. Atop the well stands a young man in traditional Aran island dress (modelled by Keating), said to represent the artist. Are the faithful imbibing from the well of religion, or of art, or of religion as interpreted by art? As a body, all three works seem bitter but brilliant parables, born of deep disillusion, while sympathetic to the plight of common people.

Though Orpen never again worked in the marble medium, his experiments in these paintings induced a radical reappraisal of his approach to tonal and linear values, which informed the style of much of his later work (most notably, his great wartime landscapes), despite his return to traditional materials.

War artist By the early 1910s Orpen was the most successful artist of his generation in Britain, and the country's most fashionable portraitist. He pursued a vigorous, hedonistic social life. After 1915 he spent but one day in Ireland, on a brief family visit in spring 1918. In December 1915 he painted one of the most powerful portraits ever done of Winston Churchill, capturing his anguish following his resignation from cabinet over the debacle of the Dardanelles campaign. Churchill said of the portrait: ‘It is not the picture of a man. It is the picture of a man's soul’ (quoted in Arnold, 304). On the introduction of general wartime conscription in 1916, Keating pleaded with Orpen to return with him to conscription-free Ireland, and join in a mission to renew Irish art. Declining his entreaties, Orpen expressed his commitment to Britain, the country to which he owed his reputation and his fortune. Enlisting for military service, he was assigned the rank of major in the war artists’ scheme, established both to create a pictorial record of the war, and to supply pictures for propaganda purposes.

Stationed for eleven months in France (April 1917–March 1918), Orpen produced a vast and diverse body of work, including landscapes, figure studies, and formal portraits of ranking officers, executed in a variety of media. During summer 1917 he completed eighteen major oil landscapes depicting the barren and deserted Somme battlefields of the previous year, while also painting watercolours, and filling numerous sketchbooks with pencil drawings. Remarkable in colour and composition, the paintings graphically record the grim aftermath of battle: the ravaged sun-baked earth, white with chalk, and littered with the detritus of war, the human and mechanical refuse. He made individual and group studies of soldiers in the field, in camp, and in hospital, of men in action, of the wounded, of German prisoners, and of the dead. Throughout all these works there prevails a mood of uncontrived, unadorned, and unflinching observation, both clinically objective and humanely compassionate, an impassive realism that proves immensely moving. For these qualities Orpen is rated the outstanding British artist of the first world war, if not Britain's greatest ever war artist.

While ill with blood poisoning and hospitalised in winter 1917–18, Orpen met Yvonne Aubicq, 20-year-old daughter of the mayor of Lille; with delicate, freshly complexioned features, tousled blonde hair, and blue eyes, she became his lover and frequent model in a relationship that lasted until 1928. He painted her in two striking works that he entitled ‘The spy’, seeking thereby to lend the pictures a wartime slant to merit their inclusion in his impending exhibition, and concocted a fanciful tale of their being composed from sketches he had been permitted to make of a beautiful German spy prior to her execution by the French. The tale being given some credence by officials in the War Office, and investigations launched, explanations were demanded of Orpen when the truth was exposed. Retitled ‘The refugee’, both pictures were included in his solo exhibition ‘War’, which opened in his presence in London in March 1918, then transferred to Manchester and North America. Comprising some 125 works encompassing the entire range of his wartime images, the show was an immense popular success, but received mixed reviews, some critics deploring the dearth of overt heroism, drama, action, and sentiment. Orpen simultaneously made a gift of all his war pictures to the Imperial War Museum (IWM). In June 1918 he was knighted for his wartime services.

Disheartened by the misunderstanding he had encountered on the home front to the reality of the war, he returned to France in July 1918 fired with a sense of mission, intent on recording for posterity the stoic heroism of the fighting man, the horrors he faced, and the sufferings he endured. His subsequent war work consequently lacks the cold-eyed immediacy of his earlier material, as he strives self-consciously to make a statement, to achieve an effect. Nonetheless, he created memorable images. ‘German bombfire in Picardy’ adapts the traditional iconography of the deposition, a soldier ascending a ladder with a hose to combat a conflagration assuming the attitude of the crucified Christ. ‘Armistice night, Amiens’ and ‘The official entry of the Kaiser’ are sardonic burlesques at the coming of peace, scenes of debauched Bruegelean revelry amid the ruins of war. ‘The mad woman of Douai’ captures the horror and human tragedy of war with metaphorical imagery reminiscent of his three Irish allegories.

Suffering a recurrence of blood poisoning, Orpen was gravely ill for two months (November 1918–January 1919). Thereafter he suffered emotional depression, oppressed by a sense of anti-climax. Commissioned to paint three pictures to commemorate the Paris peace conferences, he sketched during sessions, and painted individual portraits of leading participants, including US President Wilson. He completed two large canvases, depicting a conference session at the Quai d'Orsay, and the signing of the peace treaty in the hall of mirrors, Versailles. Both can be read as subtle satires, bespeaking Orpen's cynicism for the machinations of politicians, the row of dignitaries in each being dwarfed by the grandiose interior architecture. While working on the third picture, intended to portray the allied military and naval leaders en route to witnessing the signing of the peace, he was overcome by absolute disillusion with ‘a reality that mocks itself’. Rubbing out his work, he painted in its stead ‘To the unknown British soldier in France’ (1922), depicting a flag-draped coffin in a vast architectural space, guarded by two gaunt, half-naked, shell-shocked boy soldiers, while overhead hover two cherubim bearing garlands. Refused by the IWM, and savaged by critics when exhibited at the 1923 RA, the work was chosen picture of the year at the exhibition by public ballot, signifying the growing chasm between official and public attitudes toward the legacy of the war. Orpen subsequently painted out the soldiers and cherubim and presented the work to the IWM as a memorial to Field Marshal Earl Haig; the figures remain faintly visible on the canvas, as spectral pentimenti.

The 1920s Orpen wrote an irreverent account of his wartime experiences, An onlooker in France (1921), illustrated with ninety-six of his works, recording his disdain for military discipline, and sincere devotion to the soldiers and airmen who had been his companions and subjects. Resuming his successful civilian career, he maintained studios in London and Paris, travelling regularly between the two cities and frequenting coastal resorts, driven in his chauffeured Rolls Royce. Though his prodigious portrait practice generated a huge income, upwards of £45,000 a year by the late 1920s, most of his work was superficial, as he no longer engaged with his sitters. Lost and bewildered as a man and an artist, he drank heavily, and was frequently in ill health. His most memorable late works are two stunning nudes of Yvonne (‘Early morning’ and ‘The disappointing letter’), and ‘The chef de l'hotel Chatham, Paris’ (1921), which he mischievously submitted as his diploma work for the RA, defying the stipulation that works intended for purchase under the Chantrey bequest be executed within Britain. He edited the survey history An outline of art (1923), and wrote a nostalgic memoir, Stories of old Ireland and myself (1924). His last years were blighted by premature physical decline, cloying hangers-on, estrangement from family and former friends, and the jealousy of peers. After falling seriously ill in May 1931, and suffering impaired memory, he died 29 September 1931 in South Kensington, London, of liver and heart failure. He was buried in Putney Vale cemetery.

Character and assessment Orpen was the most successful British-based artist of the first half of the twentieth century. He exhibited regularly at the RA (1908–31), over 100 works in total, primarily portraits. Made an RA associate in 1910, he became a member in 1919. He exhibited some forty works at the RHA (1901–17), of which he became an associate in 1904, and a full member in 1907. He resigned from the RHA in 1915 after a row with the president, Dermod O'Brien (qv), but was made an honorary member in 1930. An associate from 1907 of the International Society of Painters, Sculptors, and Gravers, he was president of the body (1921–31). He was a founding member in 1911 and sometime president of the National Portrait Society, exhibited with the Society of Portrait Painters, and was a member from 1919 of the Royal Institute of Painters in Water Colours. He was awarded an honorary LLD by TCD, was an honorary fellow of University College London, and was a member of the Academy of Arts and Letters (USA), and of the Beaux Arts in both Antwerp and Brussels.

Dressed dapperly in hand-made leather shoes and Stetson hat, exuding an air of jaunty self-confidence, Orpen had a wry, mocking sense of humour, and was a scathing prankster, prone to play the buffoon. From childhood he shared a family passion for tennis, which he played into his fifties, and revelled numerous nights away at drinking, billiards, and ping pong. Exceptionally facile as an artist from an early age, he concertedly rose to the top of the profession with a ruthless ambition that often intimidated his closest associates. Among the many Irish artists to become supremely successful in Britain, he astutely captured the essentials of British society and character, while remaining ever the outsider, regarding the familiar, but alien, culture with a perceptive eye. Lacking both the intellectual disposition and breadth of education requisite for theoretical analysis and discursive thought and discussion, he practised an art that was realist by training and temperament, achieving true greatness only when his eye was confronted by the terrible reality of human suffering and endurance on the fields of war. The NGI had major retrospective exhibitions in 1978 and 2005.

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